Beacon of romance

Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge on South Hutchinson Island
Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge on South Hutchinson Island once saved the stranded and is now a romantic getaway for couples. RICK CRARY

A refuge for stranded sailors has transformed into a haven for newlyweds

BY DONNA CRARY

Kate and Axel Johansen
Kate and Axel Johansen were keepers at Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge. HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MARTIN COUNTY

In Martin County, there is a historic, scenic, coastal setting that has been a beacon to lovers for more than a hundred years. Situated on a bluff of strikingly picturesque rocks at the southerly end of Hutchinson Island, the Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge looks out over a vast expanse of aquamarine water that melts into the horizon. A soothing rhythm of white-foamed waves splashing is heard on the rocky coast, while a cool sea breeze calms the senses.

Established in 1876, it was one of 10 houses of refuge commissioned for the U.S. Life-Saving Service as havens for shipwrecked sailors and travelers along Florida’s east coast. Gilbert’s Bar is the only one that remains and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Over the years, the iconic landmark became more than a sentinel for shipwrecked sailors. It was a honeymoon destination for early settlers, and today, it has also become a popular venue for weddings. Many couples who are looking for a special experience on their big day have been attracted to this rare gem. With its breathtaking water views and timeless significance, it provides the ideal landscape for dream weddings.

EARLY KEEPERS
Florida’s shoreline in the mid-1880s was one big wilderness. When the 10 houses of refuge were completed during this time, the state’s population was roughly 350,000. That’s a little more than half the size of the Treasure Coast today.

Keepers at the houses of refuge were on constant watch, patrolling the shoreline and looking to find and rescue boaters who fell victim to Florida’s treacherous reefs and shoals. Survivors who managed to swim to shore had a slim chance of living, since there was little civilization to provide them food and water. If they were found, keepers were able to give shelter and sustenance, and help them recover.

One of the lucky survivors was Capt. Axel Johansen from Norway. In the late 1880s, he was sailing off Florida’s coast near what is now Cape Canaveral, when his ship ran into the crosshairs of a severe hurricane. The ship was torn apart and everyone perished, except for Axel.

“He floated in the water for five days on a wooden hatch cover that barely kept him afloat,” explains Linda Geary, historic site manager at Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge. “Axel eventually was in sight of shore, but he was so weak, he could not get there. He drifted for another day or so before he reached the shore. He crawled up on the beach and just laid there.”

The next morning Axel was discovered by two daughters of the keeper at Chester Shoal House of Refuge. They summoned their father, and the family nursed him back to health. After he recovered, he returned to Norway to pursue his lifelong profession of sailing the old square-riggers.

But, the memory of one of the keeper’s daughters never left his mind. His career also didn’t go as planned. So, he sold his holdings and sailed back to visit the keeper’s family at Chester Shoal.

Shortly after his arrival, he courted and then married Kate, the keeper’s oldest daughter.

Later on, Axel and Kate Johansen became the keepers at Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge from 1902 to 1903 and then returned in 1910. During their tenure, at least two couples honeymooned there.

Stuart residents Josephine and John Taylor
Stuart residents Josephine and John Taylor chose Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge for their honeymoon hideaway on the ocean. HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MARTIN COUNTY

Josephine and John Taylor
Josephine and John Taylor, one of Stuart’s pioneer couples, were married on their mutual birthdays — March 10, 1914. HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MARTIN COUNTY

PIONEER MATRIMONY
When Josephine Kitching and John E. Taylor of Stuart met in 1912, it was love at first sight. Josephine was home visiting from Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, during the winter break. She attended the Christmas Eve service at the First Methodist Episcopal Church near Stuart, where a newcomer caught her eye.

“I was up in the choir that Sunday and John Edwin Taylor was in the audience,” Josephine later wrote in her unpublished memoirs. “We both admired each other and enjoyed getting acquainted several times at home.”

Josephine was the daughter of Walter and Emma Kitching. Walter made a good living as a banker and owner of one of the few general merchandise stores in downtown Stuart. John was the stepson of Jackson McDonald, who became Stuart’s first mayor.

The co-ed resumed her academic studies at Guilford College and corresponded with John that spring. Josephine returned home to Stuart the following summer. Not one to let her get away, John proposed, and they were engaged in July.

The couple were married on March 10, 1914, at the same church where they first met. They both had mutual birthdays on their wedding day, so it was a birthday celebration, too. The bride wore a beautiful long dress of satin charmeuse trimmed in beads and lace that had a long satin train. The groom wore a Prince Albert suit. The reception, held at the Kitching home, was decorated with showers of fresh orange blossoms and Japanese lanterns were lit outside.

The newlyweds planned their fairytale honeymoon at the House of Refuge, but it was top secret. Not wanting to be disturbed during their week hideaway, they devised a ruse to throw would-be pursuers off the trail.

“John had gone over to D.E. Wynne, the railroad station agent, to supposedly make reservations on the passenger train to Cuba for our honeymoon,” Josephine wrote in her memoirs. “Mr. Wynne loved to talk, so we knew he would publish it all around the neighborhood, which he did.”

The plan went off without a hitch. Following the wedding reception, the newlyweds changed out of their formal attire and slipped out the back kitchen door unseen. They quickly ran to their getaway car, which took them to the dock at the Sunrise Inn. There, Capt. Axel and Kate Johansen, keepers of the House of Refuge, were waiting in a boat to take the couple across the river to their romantic destination.

“We fooled them,” Josephine wrote. “Only Mother and Father knew where we were. They had taken two suitcases supposed to be ours over to catch a train that we were to catch for a honeymoon in Cuba. Mother and Father went along in a car, with the bridal party in cars to see us off on the train.

The train came, and no Josephine and John around. Ha! Ha! What a surprised crowd they were!”

The newlyweds returned from their undisclosed honeymoon to live in a bungalow on Atlanta Avenue, next door to the bride’s parents in Stuart. The house was later remodeled into a two-story home, as their family grew. They had three children, Celia, Emma and John E. Taylor III, and were married for 57 years.

House of Refuge
Established in 1876, the House of Refuge’s charming, historic setting has drawn lovers for more than a century. RICK CRARY

HISTORIC SETTING
When Abigail and Brendan Rogan looked for that special location to host their wedding, it was a no-brainer. It all came down to history and a beautiful coastline.

“At that point, the House of Refuge was already one of our favorite places,” says Abigail. “Especially with my husband being a history buff and a New Englander. That place makes me feel like you’re on Cape Cod — it takes you somewhere else in time.”

The couple carefully looked at other venues and then toured the House of Refuge to see if it was the right spot. It was the color of the ocean water on that day that sealed the deal.

Abigail Rogan and her bridesmaids
Abigail Rogan and her bridesmaids look out from the rocks at the House of Refuge to the beautiful teal-colored water. BEHIND THE FACE PHOTOGRAPHY

“The water was the most perfect shade of teal that I’d seen. It was so beautiful,” she reflects. “As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘There’s no other place that we’re going to get married.’ I knew right away that it was meant to be.”

Abigail and Brendan Rogan
Abigail and Brendan Rogan were married at the House of Refuge because they love its breathtaking coastline and historical significance. BEHIND THE FACE PHOTOGRAPHY

The Rogans met in Stuart in 2013. A mutual friend tried to set them up for a date, but it never materialized. Still, they kept bumping into each other around town. Brendan eventually called Abigail up and invited her to meet him for a drink at the Dolphin Bar, formerly the Outrigger, in Jensen Beach.

“It’s still one of our favorite places — another fun, historical spot,” she says. “We met that night and ended up talking for three and a half hours. It really, really clicked. So, the rest is history.”

The couple were married on May 23, 2015. They chose a high-end nautical look for their wedding. Navy and gold were the colors used to convey that elegance with their theme.

“I like a vintage, coastal nautical vibe,” she explains. “I wanted it to feel like this Newport yacht club, but not stuffy, in a more relaxed way.”

The ceremony was held on the beach overlooking beautiful teal-colored water, just as the bride had hoped. Irish music played, a nod to Brendan’s family heritage. A cocktail reception followed with a delicious buffet that included fish and steak tacos with all the trimmings. Rum punch was the signature drink, and there was a lot of dancing to a DJ under the stars.

“We wanted our wedding to be fun,” Abigail says. “Everybody danced their butts off.”

The Rogans felt that they were providing their guests with a special experience that they couldn’t have anywhere else.

“Anybody can take a building, rent it, and decorate it,” she points out. “But the House of Refuge is different. You have that historical element, and it’s already built into the venue. You don’t have to re-create that with all of these other rentals. And just letting your guests enjoy an evening, dancing on the beach. We wanted to share it with the people that we love.”

The House of Refuge has made more than just a lasting memory on the couple. Recently, they opened up a waterfront coffee shop at the Sunset Bay Marina in downtown Stuart. It didn’t take long for them to decide on a name.

“We both felt this was an opportunity to create this space and create community, especially with it being on the water,” Abigail says. “So my husband came up with the name Gilbert’s Coffee Bar. It clicked. It really set the tone for our brand.”

The same vintage-coastal-yacht club ambience that was used in their wedding inspired the design of the coffee bar. It overlooks the St. Lucie River, offering amazing sunsets. They serve coffee, of course, including a full espresso bar. But they also provide smoothies, craft beers, wine and a select, organic food menu. And Brendan enjoys educating the public about local history. On throwback Thursdays, he posts historical photos and news about the Treasure Coast on Gilbert’s social media sites.

“There’s something special about how there’s that full-circle feeling of how this can open another space for people to not only learn about history, but to spark some romance as well,” she says.

House of Refuge
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River, the House of Refuge offers a picturesque landscape for events. HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF MARTIN COUNTY

FINDING LOVE AGAIN

Linda and Mac McNutt
Linda and Mac McNutt celebrated finding true love again at the House of Refuge, with Ed Galante officiating. LINDA GEARY

When Linda Terry sat down at her computer in February 2016, a childhood friend reappeared into her life. She was on Facebook and out of the blue, received a friend request from Mac McNutt.

“So, I texted him back and I said, ‘Are you Kenny McNutt from middle school in Sandusky, Ohio?’” she recalls. “And he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ So that got the ball rolling.”

Mac and Linda’s 50-year high school class reunion was coming up later that year. Mac reached out to Linda, hoping she would have information about the upcoming event. The reunion committee had lost contact with him over the years because he moved so frequently.

“I asked him, ‘Are you going to the reunion?’” Linda remembers. “Mac said, ‘I’d like to because I’ve never been to one.’”

Linda sent him the information about the reunion and then asked where he lived. Her home was in Mississippi. She could hardly believe her ears when he told her Stuart, Florida.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” she says. “‘Well, I’m planning to retire to Stuart in 2017.’ So, I’m thinking, ‘Oh good! When I move to Stuart, I’ll have somebody to do stuff with.’”

Both were widowed from previous marriages. The couple began chatting frequently over the phone for several months after that, and then Mac decided he wanted to see Linda in person.

“I told her, ‘I’m going to give myself an early birthday present,’” Mac says. “‘I’m going to come to Mississippi and see you.’”

When Mac and Linda saw one another after so many years, it was as though time had stood still. Their relationship quickly developed from that moment on.

south porch of the House of Refuge
Looking out from the south porch of the House of Refuge, the sun casts a soft golden light over the Indian River. RICK CRARY

“He said, ‘I think I’m falling in love with you,’” Linda says. “Neither one of us said, ‘Wait, step back, it’s going too fast,’ because it didn’t feel that way. We both felt that it was right.”

Circumstances fell into place. During that spring, Linda’s employer offered her an early retirement opportunity, so she accepted it and put her house on the market. It wasn’t long afterwards that Mac proposed marriage.

Later in the fall, the couple attended their high school reunion in Ohio. And not wasting any time, they journeyed to Stuart to quickly plan for a November wedding.

“There’s a Johnny Mathis song that is one of my favorites called ‘Twelfth of Never,’” Linda notes. “Mac kept calling it the Twelfth of November. Ironically, we got married on the twelfth of November, because of that song.”

The couple toured other venues for the wedding but were smitten by the quaintness and beauty at the House of Refuge. There they worked with Lynn Dimon, the establishment’s event coordinator, who made their planning an enjoyable experience.

“Lynn could not have been more accommodating,” Linda points out. “She was so sweet and embraced us like family.”

Additional planning of their big day was truly a family affair. Linda’s daughter prepared the food, Mac’s daughter set up and decorated the tables, and Linda’s granddaughter arranged her hair and makeup.

“They were extremely helpful in pulling things together,” she says.

The ceremony was held outside the House of Refuge, facing sparking blue waters of the Atlantic. Their beach-formal wedding was an intimate gathering of family and close friends. Purple and yellow were the colors used to convey a tropical ambiance. A beer and wine reception followed, including a tasty buffet dinner of pulled pork and shredded chicken sandwiches, served with coleslaw. Chocolate and vanilla cakes topped off the menu.

As the newlyweds toasted to new beginnings, a fiery sunset cast orange and golden hues over the Indian River Lagoon. Dancing followed to oldies tunes, with a full moon rising above the ocean. Mac and Linda showed that you can find true love again. Reaching out to a friend from way back made it all possible.

BEACH WEDDING

Natalie and Erik Smith
A brilliant sunset over the Indian River provided a romantic background for Natalie and Erik Smith’s wedding. BRAD’S CREATIVE IMAGES

In 2008, Natalie Rutoski went to the library at her local college in Michigan to work on physics homework. Little did she know that she was about to meet the man who would capture her heart. Erik Smith was working on algebra problems there when he quickly spotted a pretty, petite blonde. Seizing the right moment, he approached her and asked if she needed help with her homework.

“It was at this moment when all the butterflies started,” Natalie remembers.

She didn’t need help but was certainly interested in talking to him. After their first meeting, the couple made a point of showing up at the library regularly and soon began dating. It wasn’t long before Natalie realized that Erik was the one.

“I went home and told my mom, ‘I think I met the guy that I’m going to marry,’” she recalls.

Eventually in 2015, Erik popped the question amid a brilliant sunset at Shepherd’s Park in Stuart.

“She’s an angel,” he says. “I realized then that I’m never going to find someone more beautiful, inside and out. So, I needed to get things moving.”

They spent the next two years planning for their big day. Erik’s mother opened Natalie’s eyes to the right venue by sending her an oceanfront picture from the House of Refuge.

“I didn’t know about the place, at first,” Natalie says. “When I saw the water, I said, ‘That’s absolutely a beautiful beach. Where are you?’

When I found out where, I wondered if they did weddings.”

It turns out that the century-old landmark was the perfect spot for their romantic beach wedding.

wedding cake
Inspired by the coastal ambience, the Smith’s red-velvet wedding cake was filled with layers of raspberry ganache and cream-cheese filling. BRAD’S CREATIVE IMAGES

“I just fell in love with the venue and we planned everything around it,” she says.

The couple hired a wedding planner, Weddings by Rachel, who guided them throughout the entire process.

“She was amazing,” Natalie says. “She really took the stress off of it. I didn’t have to worry about how many plates, forks and knives I needed. She took care of that. She handled all the contracts with the vendors and made sure the timeline was running smoothly.”

Natalie and Erik were married on May 6, 2017, under a perfectly clear, blue sky. A cool breeze drifted off the Atlantic, adding to the dreamy, coastal setting.

As the guests arrived, they received a history lesson and toured the museum. Then the ceremony began on the patio outside. Drawing inspiration from the natural beach scenery, the colors they chose for their wedding were aqua and light khaki. Natalie walked out to an island rendition of “Here Comes the Bride,” with a steel-drum band softly playing.

A cocktail reception followed where coconut shrimp, sausage-stuffed mushrooms and tomato-mozz shooters were served. Then the newlyweds and their guests were treated to a sumptuous sit-down dinner of filet mignon, chicken francaise paired with potatoes au gratin and green beans almondine. The tables were decorated with lanterns and white hydrangeas. Live Caribbean-style music played, providing a relaxing, subtropical mood that invited guests to dance the night away.

Celebrating their nuptials at the House of Refuge was all so romantic. Savoring a historic landmark with breathtaking water views created an idyllic wedding they will never forget.

“It was just the perfect day, everything from start to finish,” Natalie says fondly. “We had such a good time and we didn’t want it to end.”

Natalie and Erik Smith
Natalie and Erik Smith’s wedding at the House of Refuge “was just the perfect day …” BRAD’S CREATIVE IMAGES

A GOWN FOR GENERATIONS

Josephine Kitching's gown
Josephine Kitching's gown

Josephine Kitching, born to two of Stuart’s earliest pioneers, wore this gown when she married John E. Taylor on March 10, 1914. The beautiful dress was finely made of satin charmeuse trimmed in beads and lace that had a long satin train. The bride’s parents made special arrangements for a dressmaker from North Carolina to stay in Stuart for several months and sew the gown as well as Josephine’s trousseau and the bridesmaids’ dresses. The wedding gown has been worn by five other women in the Kitching family: Josephine’s daughter, Emma Ashley; granddaughters, Jo Marie Paradise, Marjorie Houmes, and Judith Clark; and great-granddaughter, Joye Tomei. The gown will be on exhibit at the House of Refuge from May 1 through June 30.

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